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Display Spaces and The Dock

Apple is blowing it with multiple display user experience

I have, over the course of my personal and professional life, become a lover of Apple products. I liked Apple before it was cool. I liked Apple while it was becoming cool. I liked Apple after it was cool. And I even still liked Apple when it stopped being cool again. But things are not okay in paradise and it has become a very frustrating thing to want Apple to do better and be the company again they once were.

Today I’m going to illustrate one of my long-standing frustrations as a case-in-point.

As a multi-display user of OS X macOS for many years, and certainly prior to 10.9 Mavericks, I had often lamented that items relevant to the window I would be working with on a “secondary” display (mostly the menu bar) would require a mouse trip to the primary display. The Mavericks release was supposed to fix this issue by promoting all displays to the same general status in the system. What I had hoped Apple was doing when this feature was announced was doing away with any distinction between displays. Why must one be designated primary? Why, when going full screen with an app or using Spaces must all other displays be part of the space or blacked out by the full screen app?

Indeed, 10.9 did fix several of these issues. Spaces are now per display—as well they should be—and full screen apps no longer make your other displays useless. Additionally, the menu bar now appears on all displays. These are very welcome improvements and I applauded them greatly.

But Apple did not do away with the “primary display” distinction completely as you can still designate which display is primary for your desktop files and whatnot. This is fine for that purpose. Additionally, your primary display will (initially) contain the Dock and the Cmd + Tab switcher. Now here is the crux of my particular issue. The Dock and switcher being on the primary display would be okay—although I would prefer they be on all screens like the menu bar—but Apple made a decision that will forever confuse the hell out of me. The Dock can switch screens, and the Cmd + Tab switcher follows it. If you do not have the Dock hidden, it can be somewhat difficult to switch screens—you sort of have to place your cursor at the bottom of the screen, stop moving the mouse, then drag down. But I did try living with the Dock un-hidden for a while to see if this would overcome my issue. I still manage to trigger the Dock to move to a non-primary display when I don’t want it to.

On the other hand, when the Dock is hidden, it is very easy to trigger it to move. It moves over to another display as soon as the cursor is at the bottom of the screen. I prefer to run with my Dock hidden for screen realestate purposes since I don’t use the Dock all that often while I’m doing various things. However, I do use the Cmd + Tab switcher constantly. And very often I’m switching between multiple applications at a time so I tend to use it visually. I trigger the switcher, and then either use the mouse or keep tabbing until the application I want is selected. The trouble since 10.9 is where the switcher is located on my displays is unpredictable as I may have accidentally triggered a Dock move to a non-primary screen. This is what we call poor user interface design and a poor user experience. Consistency and muscle memory is key in user interfaces and Apple has completely blown it here.

Here’s what really rubs me the wrong way: it has been blown since 10.9. Apple recently released macOS 10.12 and this behavior has not changed at all. A quick Google search of this issue using various keywords reveals that I am far from the only user complaining about this issue. I found threads dating back to not long after the release of 10.9 begging Apple to fix this problem. It’s not a big problem, but it is one I run into every. single. day. which makes it one of the most annoying problems of macOS I run into. As a vendor of software, you do not want people to become annoyed with your software. But this particular bug (I definitely classify it as a bug) is one I have run into every day since the release of 10.9 and I am definitely annoyed. The only solution to this problem is to disable the setting giving displays their own spaces. But changing that setting has the undesired affect of reverting to the pre-10.9 behavior for the menubar, spaces, and full screen applications. I hate giving up the new and welcome functionality.

I will accept two solutions to this problem:

  1. Make the behavior of the Dock and Cmd + Tab switcher like the menu bar—show it on all displays (preferred)

  2. Keep the Dock and Cmd + Tab switcher on the primary display at all times (not preferred but acceptable)

Neither of these options seem all that hard to implement. But with the release of macOS Sierra, Apple seemed far more content to ship features no one was asking for and, much worse, half-baked features that simply don’t work, don’t have a proper interface, and no one should use (see ATP 189 for more on what I’m talking about).

For three releases we’ve lived with the consequences of Apple not completely thinking through the user experience of Dock and Cmd + Tab switcher migrating displays and not being available in a consistent location and failing to course correct.

This is but an illustration of many of the little straws being piled on the back of the camel, but the burden of straw with Apple software on the Mac is becoming quite heavy and it is my hope that Apple will start paying attention to us once again.